FEMA contract keeps Texas from sharing its own data publicly about state-funded disaster recovery programs

Texans are in the dark about the State’s progress in administering short-term housing programs and whether the State is meeting the immediate needs of Hurricane Harvey survivors.

The General Land Office, which oversees disaster recovery for Texas, entered into an Intergovernmental Service Agreement with FEMA to administer five short-term programs to address housing needs in the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Among these five are the Partial Repair and Essential Power for Sheltering program and the Direct Assistance for Limited Home Repair program.

We requested the data. The State has refused to disclose it.

The State of Texas is withholding information about the progress of these five programs, citing a confidentiality agreement with FEMA that state officials signed, promising not to share “data or materials generated by the State in fulfillment of this Agreement.” FEMA pays for 90 percent of the program while the State of Texas pays for 10 percent. Texas is using both State and federal public funds to serve impacted people, yet is withholding public information about what it is doing with the funds.

This agreement is overbearing and legally unenforceable, and it goes against the Texas Public Information Act (PIA), which emphasizes transparency and open decision making to ensure continued trust and confidence in government. According to the PIA law, Texans have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. The confidentiality agreement the State has signed with FEMA is the excuse the State is using to prevent this from happening in this case.

Generally, governmental bodies are prohibited from entering into contracts to keep information confidential. (See Open Records Decision Nos. 514 (1988), 484 (1987), 479 (1987)). The Public Information Act requires the release of all information held by governmental bodies unless one of the Act’s specific exceptions protects the information from required disclosure.

In the State’s draft Hurricane Harvey Action Plan, the GLO includes only a one-sentence description of each of the five programs without providing any data on the number or location of applicants that qualify for each program, obstacles faced in implementing these programs, or how findings from these programs have informed the GLO’s assessment of unmet need.

These short-term housing programs are the subject of intense public interest and growing concern with delays and complaints by some survivors over the quality of the repairs funded by the programs.

Aside from the accountability and transparency issues, we are also concerned that this gap in understanding further hides the details about who is being served, who has been denied assistance and what this information could explain about the long-term rebuilding needs in impacted areas.

Determining unmet needs is primarily done through FEMA data. We’ve written about how FEMA data is problematic and should be supplemented by other factors. (Not to mention that granular data from FEMA is not available to the public at this point, but another blog for another day). One example of other factors to consider is information about who is served through State-run short-term programs. This could give us a snapshot of short-term needs that has been addressed which will likely then turn into long-term needs that must be addressed.

Additionally, if there are problems with interim housing programs, the performance of these interim programs must be known to the public so that the public can demand that the state fix the problems. Problems can only be fixed when they are brought out into the light.

GLO spent days negotiating all sorts of details of the FEMA contract. But GLO accepted these blanket government data secrecy requirements. We wonder why.

Survivors of disaster deserve better.

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released on Jan. 18. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public untilFeb. 1 Feb. 20, to comment. We are blogging our comments about the Action Plan every day during the comment period. We’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 

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